Monday, 30 May 2011

Summer Reading List

An Account of my Absence

I realize that the last post I wrote here was one promising activity. It was written about a month ago. I can explain.

In early May I returned to Fort McMurray to visit friends and family. I've been here since then and will be here a little while longer before returning to the beautiful British Columbia. While here I have been treating reading and writing like a full-time job, putting in eight hours a day, five days a week. At first I wrote an early draft of an article for a journal which I have sent to a professor for feedback, and since then I've worked on creative writing. For the first little while I journalled and wrote letters on top of these eight hours, but after a while I realized that I could not physically take it: my eyes and knuckles were in pain by the end of the day. Since then I have absorbed journal- and letter-writing into this schedule.

Needless to say, with all of this writing my blogging has suffered drastically. While I have continued reading blogs and commenting periodically, I have not felt interested in or even capable of producing posts of my own. For this reason I will henceforth include blogging in those eight hours, so long as I do not exceed one day per week.

Because I cannot share what I have been writing, I will instead give you my reading list so far.

1. "Against Literary Darwinism" (Jonathan Kramnick, Winter 2011)
Because I doubt many of my readers care about literary theory, I'll try for brevity: Kramnick is arguing that a particular school of literary analysis which calls itself Literary Darwinism is bunk. LD claims to be trying to draw literary analysis out of relativist irrelevance and into hard, stable science. Sadly, says Kramnick, the science they are using as a base is an older form of evolutionary psychology which is far from universally accepted in the current scientific academy (it suggests that all traits are selected for rather than merely selected, failing to recognize the possibility of byproducts, or spandrels). Further, it fails on the literary end, since it is unable to isolate the universal formal traits of literature which it seeks to identify, instead slipping into universal themes of love and triumph which, the LDs say, rehearse evolutionary pressures. Universal themes are not universal forms and so they fail to provide what they claim to provide. It's an interesting article, but because it's written mainly for a literary analytical audience it doesn't go into what's wrong with universal themes (since any literary analyst worth her salt already knows why), so if you aren't immersed in this discipline's theory you might wonder why that isn't addressed.

2. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (Wade Davis)
One River details the travels of the author and his colleague Tim Plowman (an ethnobotanist) through the Amazong rain forest in search of the origin of coca, the plant used to make cocaine (and Coca-Cola); it also details the botanical biography of their mentor Richard Schultes and his own journeys in Oklahoma, Mexico, and the Amazon rain forest (I realize I'm jumbling catgories there; all I can say is that it reflects how Schultes travelled, not how I conceptualize these places). I spent a lot of time with this book; its seeming endlessness may unintentionally replicate the Amazon itself. Despite what the title suggests, it does not seem to be especially about one river. Each time Davis announced that someone will embark on an exploration of yet another uncharted river, I would reflect on the irony of this title. This book is not for the faint of heart. And, yet, it was absolutely worth it, not just because I learned a lot about psychoactive and medicinal plants in the Amazon basin or about the rubber trade during the Second World War (which is incredibly fascinating, by the way) or about the customs and contact histories of numerous aboriginal peoples, but because I learned a lot about knowledge production itself. One River is about, among other things, an enormous taxonomical enterprise, in which the description and classification of plants make their discovery. That is, it is only when you can describe a plant and then place it in a larger categorical web (taxonomy, bionomial nomenclature, genetic lineages) that you can claim that such a plant is known and further work on it can begin. In a sense, One River helped me understand how taxonomy, the part of biology I liked most in high school and was least respected by biology and biochemical student friends in undergraduate, is integral to the very basis of biology and is also that point which most reveals how the field is organized. But this book is also about the weakennesses of western, post-enlightenment science (anyone mind if I stop capitalizing "enlightenment" as a historical event?) next to the botany of the aboriginal peoples of the Amazon, the numerous inheritors of Incan science. While Schultes changed botany, Davis has changed ethnobotany: some of his encounters suggest that the vast pharmaceutical knowledge of the South American peoples was generated after the Spanish arrived on the continent. That is, this is not ancient wisdom passed down after millenia of slow growth, but a (relatively) rapid generation of new empirical knowledge in response to the new diseases that the conquistadores brought with them, a knowledge reflecting social conditions and resources. This casts the indigenous peoples not as passive recipients of inflexible tradition but active creators of working medicinal practices. This is an important distinction to make.
Anyway, I could keep going on about this book: I could launch a substantial argument that it is an ethnobotanical epic just as the Iliad is a Greek national epic and The Faerie Queen is an English national epic, or I could discuss homosociality and the gendering of science as it appears in the chapter entitled "The Blue Orchid," but I'll forbear. If you want to see other books by Wade Davis I've discussed, you can look at this post where I talk about The Wayfinders or this post where I talk about The Serpent and the Rainbow.

3. The Problem of Pain (C S Lewis)
I see that Leah has recently read this as well. I always feel calmer after reading Lewis, but I presume Lewis only has this effect on Christians, and even then only on those of a certain bent. I'm not sure I think that this is quite sufficient as far as theodicy goes (note: theodicy is the branch of theology which accounts for evil and/or suffering in the world), especially as I'm not willing to follow Lewis down particular paths. (I always have trouble when he starts talking about drives and instincts because, quite frankly, I can easily postulate models which overcome his objections--mere hierarchy of drives usually does it--and I'm sure cognitive psychology can do the trick quite fine and with more empirical clout than my postulated models have.) This being said, Lewis' book does have a lot of value in the observations and discussions that he develops alongside his theodicy. For instance, I was fascinated with his idea of the necessity of an impersonal, causal world outside of human control and not subject to frequent miracles; we require separation from the other to recognize the other as something outside of oneself. If we were all so perfectly psychic as to immediately experience our neighbour's thoughts, we would not recongize those thoughts as someone else's. This, I think, is fascinating. I also find it fascinating that in this book Lewis clearly comes down on the side of evolution (though he has a twist of divine intervention in his story which I suspect Pullman borrowed and inverted in his Dark Materials trilogy).

4. Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)
In Howl's Moving Castle, the young protagonist Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Wastes so that she appears to be an elderly woman and, in order to be free of the curse, must seek the help of the wizard Howl, owner of a moving castle and eater of young girls' hearts. What this book may lack in deep insights about human character and social ills is amply made up for in the inclusion of unique main characters: the female lead, while nominally young like in most young adult books, appears to be and acts as if she were elderly for most of the book; the male lead, a powerful and older but nonetheless young- and handsome-looking wizard, frequently emasculates himself and gets through the book primarily through dashing cowardice. Also included in the novel are Sophie's sisters who for the time being go by the same name and appearance, a dog which seems to have once been a human being, a very determined scarecrow, a petulant fire demon living in a fire place, and a young apprentice (about the only generically recognizable character outside the Witch of the Wastes). Given the similarity of many YA and fantasy protagonists, especially when compared within gender lines, these characters offer refreshing alternatives. If you want something that plays a lot with generic conventions while somehow fulfilling them, you may want to look at this book.

5. An Acceptable Time (Medeleine L'Engle)
Polly O'Keefe is visiting her grandparents in a house recognizable to readers of the Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters), when Zachary Gray appears. With him seems to come a time portal, drawing Polly into the New England of 1000 BCE, where she interacts with the People of the Wind, an aboriginal group who have absorbed two exiles from Britain and their druidic teachings. Like all L'Engle books, Polly attempts to negotiate through a world both intellectual and relational, linking science, religion, literature, hope, and forgiveness. I quite enjoyed this book (notwithstanding the fact that my apparent taste in female-oriented YA continues to erode any sense of my own masculinty), though I am really starting to question L'Engle's protagonists' tastes in guys. I was a little uncomfortable in two places, though: first, the book tends towards a romanticization of indigenous peoples, though it's far better than many of its alternatives; second, Polly on occasion is taken for a goddess, and as uncomfortable as she says this makes her, she seems willing to use it to serve her goals. I'm not too keen on such behaviour.

6. Disappearing Moon Cafe (SKY Lee)
Before I begin, I want to state that I'm not sure why the author insists on capitalizing all of the letters in her first name. But she does, so I'll follow suit. (The Wikipedia page is not as accomodating.)
The professor I had for my Asian Canadian Studies class first semester recommended Disappearing Moon Cafe when we complained that there was no literature on the curriculum. I bought it at the end of that semester but did not get much past the prologue until last week. It explores four generations of the Wong family, Asian Canadians located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, proprietors of the eponymous cafe. The narrative skips around time periods, structured not chronologically but rather revelationally, attempting to hold back the secrets which continue to trouble the narrator, Kae Wong of the fourth and last generation of the Wong clan's Vancouver branch. Only as the novel progresses do you discover the disturbing occurances lurking in the Wong family's past. It's a good book, if written in a perhaps over-ornamented style replete with modifiers. Some people like that sort of thing, of course. It's a little preoccupied with incest, however, so if that bothers you, you might want to pass. This is not an "easy" book either in prose or content, dealing as it does with feminist and Asian Canadian issues, and employing a lot of Asian Canadian colloquial language.

7. "Discourse in the Novel" (Mikhail Bakhtin)
I've started this but not finished it. It's the next installment in my literary analytical readings.
Bakhtin is an important and brilliant if sometimes underrepresentated and misunderstood literary theorist. His ideas about carnivalesque and heteroglossia have strongly impacted the English department but (at least according to my colleagues in my Reported Speech course) nonetheless remain poorly understood, having been twisted somewhat to fit the agendas or frameworks of contemporary theorists. As such, I have decided to become more familiar with this thinker. (I was also supposed to have read this for class and failed; further, I realize I lack the theoretical backing that many of my peers can profess and I think Bakhtin might be a good, more unique investment.) "Discourse in the Novel" outlines how a more dialogic understanding of the novel is necessary; this genre is situated perfectly, thinks Bakhtin, to reflect and use the contrasting unitary and heteroglossic forces in language and the perpetual fact of literature as located amongst other utterances. (If this seems rather technical, that's because it is.)

*sigh* You should never get me started on books, because then I tend to go on. I had planned to write more posts today but am running out of time. With luck I will get a few done.


Leah said...

I'm amused to find we were reading in parallel! And, I'll confess I am almost certainly atypical, but I also feel a sense of peace when reading Lewis. (Lewis apologetics that is, I've been terribly disappointed when I've gone back to Narnia. Nothing happens in Prince Caspian except in flashback!)

Christian H said...

You, atypical? No!

Frankly, I love the flashbacks of Caspian, but I love nested narratives. Planet Narnia seems like a terribly hokey concept, but it actually does a good job of explaining little things like that. What makes me uncomfortable about the Narnia stories is the sexism, the royalism, the Islamaphobia, the smug humour. Otherwise I would be (am) enthralled with them. That being said, I think we differ somewhat in how internally consistent we expect our fictional worlds to be.

Leah said...

Just have to add, this post totally suckered me into rereading Howl's Moving Castle. Thanks!

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